Netflix’s The Witcher is a memorable watch for many reasons: Geralt of Rivia’s dry, dispassionate line delivery and dedicated love of baths; the bard Jaskier and his absolute banger of a ballad dedicated to his monster-hunting muse; exciting fight sequences; and a freakishly complex timeline that’s as frustrating as it is fun to unravel. But what makes the series really stand out in the current landscape of fantasy television is that while it’s ostensibly a story about the titular stoic bounty hunter, it features some of the most complex, flawed, and all-around great female characters in genre right now.
This is shocking in and of itself because, on paper, The Witcher seems like exactly the sort of show that should be vaguely misogynist at best and grossly sexist at worst. The pseudo-medieval setting full of monsters and hulking warriors seems tailor-made for the inclusion of such common fantasy tropes as damsels in distress, sassy sex workers, and pointless, objectifying nudity of the variety used so frequently on Game of Thrones. (Never forget Petyr Baelish’s Brothels of Exposition, folks!)
How many women on shows like this barely get full names, let alone things like character development or arcs of their own?
Yet, The Witcher not only gives its female characters the sort of depth and agency that most fantasy series never even attempt, it also makes the deliberate choice to tell stories about women from a wide variety of backgrounds, classes, and abilities, and consistently goes to the mat (narratively speaking) for their right to choose their own destinies
The women of The Witcher aren’t perfect—the show’s depiction of intersectional issues like race and disability, as well as its clunky ideas about the power of motherhood could use some work as it heads into Season 2. But unlike so many other fantasy series, these female characters aren’t here to serve men’s stories, or to allow men to tell theirs. Instead, The Witcher’s women are presented as everything that men are—and have always been—in genre stories: Heroes, villains, and everything in between.
The Witcher follows the stories of over a half a dozen strong, capable women during the course of its eight-episode first season, and each is compelling, captivating and often awful in her own unique way. One of the best things about the world of this show is that there’s no one specific way to be a woman in it, which means we see everything from hardened female warriors to icy monarchs, trauma survivors and girly girls discovering their own strength. These characters all occupy complex moral spaces, where they each possess their own agendas, have their own flaws and make their own mistakes. Their motivations and goals are both noble and selfish, often at the same time. These women are, in short, fully realized characters—just as Geralt and the rest of the men in the series are.
Battle-hardened queen Calanthe styles herself as the Lioness of Cintra and loves the brutality of bloodshed, not simply for its own sake but because it serves as the great equalizer in the heavily patriarchal society in which she lives. She loves her family and puts the good of her kingdom above everything else. Yet, she is hardly a role model. Though she is an admirable leader, Calanthe is also a liar and a bully, and for all her great battle victories, her hubris is what ultimately dooms Cintra to destruction. (Not to mention the fact that she commits something awfully close to genocide against the neighboring elves.)
Her daughter Pavetta chooses a different path, making decisions based on her heart rather than her head. She desires the life of love, commitment and stability her mother has always rejected, even if that means marrying a guy who happens to have been turned into a hedgehog and keeping a secret that ultimately sees her daughter become a Child of Surprise. The talented female mages of Aretuza run the gamut from sweetly noble to selfishly manipulative, but their leader Tissaia de Vries’s rule is based on a combination of snarky cruelty, frosty care, and a constant willingness to sacrifice any one of her “girls” for what she sees as the greater good.
But it is The Witcher’s two female leads who are perhaps its most remarkable creations, simply because neither of them turn out to be precisely who you expect. By all rights, Princess Cirilla of Cintra and the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg should be little more than caricatures—one a goody goody symbol of hope for her people, and the other a dark temptress only out to serve her own ends. Spoiler alert: Neither of them come anywhere close to these archetypes.
Ciri is an avatar of hope for many, yes; but she’s also a teenage girl struggling to survive in a world that doesn’t recognize or respect her ability, and who is relentlessly targeted by those who wish to claim her power for themselves. She possesses immense magical abilities, which she doesn’t understand and can’t really control, which often makes her a threat to others whether she means to be or not. (She causes considerable destruction over the course of the season, including that eerie scene in which she realizes she probably ripped several people limb from limb.)
Much like Sansa Stark before her, a large part of Ciri’s journey involves shedding the naivete of her previously sheltered life: Not all people are kind, not all intentions are good, and sometimes, all you can count on to save you is yourself. On the plus side—and I’m sure thanks to The Witcher’s female showrunner, Lauren Hissrich—watching the Lion Cub of Cintra claim her birthright doesn’t involve seeing her survive sexual assault as well. (See, guys, it can be done!)
And there is Yennefer of Vengerberg, a gifted mage who desires the same power and control over her own choices that men wield. Mostly, she just wants more, period. The formerly disfigured Yen wants to be more beautiful; more influential; more respected; more loved.
“I want everything!” she shouts as she wrestles for control of a magical djinn that may or may not be able to make all her dreams come true.
On a different sort of show, Yennefer—who wears slinky, fur-covered outfits and traded her reproductive organs for a life of beauty and privilege—would likely be little more than a sex object, present only for various leading men to lust over without fear of producing a child. Here, she is as key to the larger story of The Witcher as Geralt is, and over the course of the season, she grows into a hero in her own right, making plenty of mistakes and hard choices along the way. By the time we reach the finale, where it appears as though Yennefer has sacrificed herself in the name of protecting the less fortunate from those that would do them harm, it’s a moment that feels both satisfying and heartbreakingly earned. (Even if we all know there is no way her character is gone for good.)
The Witcher isn’t Game of Thrones, where a trio of powerful women exist in a world that’s still primarily catered to and run by men. Instead, this is a show that treats its women as both necessary elements of and equal partners in the stories it’s trying to tell, and crafts its universe accordingly. More series should learn to do the same.
The Witcher is currently streaming on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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